Opioid Crisis Hits Home for Many in Douglas County

No one plans to develop a substance use disorder (SUD). SUD is not a moral failing, it’s a mental disorder that affects a person’s brain and behavior, leading to an inability to control their use of illegal drugs, alcohol, or prescription medications. SUD, and specifically opioid use disorder, is becoming more and more prevalent in our community.

Substance use disorders, in particular opioid and alcohol use disorders, are a major health issue in Douglas County. The hospital admission rate for drug poisonings is 3.7 per 10,000, and both significantly higher than the state and trending up. In 2020, there were 255 opioid overdose deaths in Kansas, which accounted for 53.6% of all drug overdose deaths in the state.

For those struggling SUD, getting help can be difficult. The road to recovery can be long and hard. Researchers have found that about half of individuals who experience addiction during their lives will also experience a co-occurring mental disorder.

People seeking help for SUD should be evaluated by a health care provider to make an accurate diagnosis due to the possibility of overlapping symptoms. Rosie Mueller, PA-C, a provider at Heartland, sees patients for their health care, while collaborating with a team of mental health professionals and pharmacists.

This summer, Mueller met a new patient who had reached out to Heartland to inquire about medication to treat a self-described addiction to pain pills (opioids). He told the provider he had been abusing opioids for most of his adult life and was ready to make a change, for himself and for his family. 

“After we evaluated the patient and spoke to him about medication assisted SUD treatment options, he was excited to take the next steps,” said Mueller. “However, the reality soon sunk in that he had no money on him and was not getting paid until the following week.”

The patient was prescribed Suboxone as part of this whole-person treatment plan with his primary care provider and the mental & behavioral health team at Heartland, but he did not have means to pay for his medications. Mueller connected the patient with River City Pharmacy.

Grant Holmes, PharmD, a Pharmacist at River City Pharmacy, worked with Heartland staff to get the patient qualified for a sliding fee scale to get his medication and copay costs reduced. He went further to sign the patient up for the Compassionate Care Fund.  This patient’s life altering medication was dispensed at no cost to him that day.

“Assisting patients with affordable medication is something we do every day at River City Pharmacy,” Holmes said. “This patient was able to see a new primary care provider and receive treatment at one appointment. Helping this patient start his recovery from substance abuse disorder was truly a team effort and would not have been possible without our pharmacy and the new opportunities available to help patients afford their medications.”

More than 932,000 people have died since 1999 from a drug overdose. Nearly 75% of drug overdose deaths in 2020 involved an opioid.  Overdose deaths involving opioids, including prescription opioidsheroin, and synthetic opioids (like fentanyl), have increased by more than eight times since 1999. Overdoses involving opioids killed nearly 69,000 people in 2020.

Medications, such as Suboxone, should be combined with behavioral counseling for a whole-person approach, known as Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT). MAT is proven to decrease opioid use. Patients treated with medication are also more likely to remain in therapy compared to patients receiving treatment that did not include medication. Additionally, there is an 80% increase in SUD treatment completion when paired with integrated care services.

When a person is treated for an opioid addiction with a medication such as Suboxone, the dosage does not get them “high”. Medication Assisted Treatment helps restore balance to the brain while reducing cravings and withdrawal.

Even though MAT and mental health services exist for people impacted by SUD, many barriers can stand in the way for many to receive care.  Among adults who need mental health or substance use care, some groups are more likely to face barriers to accessing care, including uninsured people, underinsured people, and communities of color. 

During 2018-2019 in Kansas, 65.5% of adults with mild mental illness, 53.8% of adults with moderate mental illness, and 30.2% of adults with serious mental did not receive mental health treatment. Among Kansans who reported an unmet need for mental health treatment in the past year, 52.4% did not receive care because of cost.

In 2021, Heartland treated more than 1,000 people with MAT services like Suboxone, 35% of which uninsured.  In addition to accepting Medicaid/Medicare and commercial insurance, Heartland has a sliding-fee scale and many options available for people without insurance or ability to pay for treatment.

If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance use disorder, contact Heartland today.